Carolina: Cruising Past 70

Thursday, September 20, 2018

You Can Relive the Old Hollywood Charm on Catalina Island, Just Off LA

our ship from the top of the hill
Yes, it may be in the waters where Natalie Wood was found dead near her dinghy, but it is one island we didn’t expect to be as charming as we found it. True, gasoline is a staggering $6.75 per gallon, but the main means of transportation are golf carts, so it works! There are thousands of them for the 4,000 residents and for the million tourists a year, about 300,000 from cruise ships like Carnival Imagination which comes twice a week and 700,000 from ferries that arrive from LA every day.

There were two ways we toured the island. First, after being transported from our ship to the shore on the tenders, we joined the Avalon Scenic Tour, one of the many excursions offered by Carnival Imagination. There was an overflow from the air-conditioned tour bus so eight of us had to be at an open air extreme jeep. At first, I didn’t like the prospect of my hair getting messed up by the wind and dust but, later, I liked that I could take photos better, sans the glass windows.

view of Avalon from the top of the hill

The tour took us to the highest point from where we saw our Carnival Imagination docked and the harbor that is the smaller and less luxurious version of the one in Monaco, another playground of the rich. As the jeep negotiated the at times steep zig-zag road on the little mountain, we saw the stone stacking and pet burial sites of the locals. Several deer sneaked upon us; they flourish on the island since there is no predator larger than the small fox. So at certain days of the week, deer hunting is legal.

Wrigley's Mansion

On a bend of the road going down the hill, Wrigley’s mansion made its appearance. The chewing gum magnate purchased the island in 2013 and, although he was once buried there, his body was transferred to the mainland and the tomb is now a simple Memorial to the man who created the tourist destination. I understand his family stays at the mansion two weeks of every month. In fact, the old Chicago Cubs’ residential houses still remain. The team used them when they trained on the island during spring. But the diamond is no longer there. Wrigley owned the team at one point in time.

Avalon Casino

Down the hill, on the other side of the harbor stands Avalon Casino, the island’s icon. It is not a real casino. The original meaning of the word is a “gathering place” so there is no gambling there. It is a 140-ft tall circular building made up of two parts, encircled by water. On the top floor is the Catalina Casino Ballroom with a 20,000 square foot dance floor. It is the world's largest ballroom with a 180-foot diameter dance floor that accommodates 3,000 dancers. I would have loved to do the foxtrot, waltz or tango there! The old Hollywood glamor is recreated there.

the Movie Theater

The movie theater on the ground floor is the first in the country to feature talking movies. With a seating capacity of 1,154, it has such great sound insulation that speakers on stage do not need a microphone to be heard. Murals created by John Gabriel Beckman decorate the theater walls. Its original 4-manual, 16-rank pipe-organ is now one of the oldest organs in the country. Sample clips of the time the stars and celebrities gushed about the island were shown, underlining its old Hollywood charm.

the murals of the movie theater

At the end of the tour, on the flats, the homes and inns are pastel-colored wooden structures. Some of them were the old homes of Hollywood greats like Marilyn Monroe, another item contributing to the island’s old charm. We started to walk around the small downtown area. As usual, I shopped for a tank top. I always do to remember a place I thoroughly enjoyed. Bill found his treasure at a shop that had a 50% off sale on select Reyn Spooner Hawaiian shirts, Bill’s favorite brand. They are so well-made, the fabric doesn’t wrinkle, and they never age. One of his two old ones was what he wore when we first met.

the small pier

the tile fountain
Then we walked the small pier and had what else but fish and chips! We watched the beach scene, busy with water activities like parasailing, kayaking, and trips to the Lovers’ Cove. Finally, we lingered for a little while at the unique fountain in the middle of the coastal strip. It is made of the lovely tiles that the town of Avalon, the island’s only incorporated city, is known for. Reminiscent of those made in Mexican, Spanish, and Portuguese towns, the colorful tiles decorated the plaza, buildings and other public places.

I’m sure you can feel how much we were charmed by Catalina Island. We were sad when, at 3 pm, we had to board the tenders. The ship was to depart at 4. We vowed to return, make that six-hour road trip from Phoenix, ride that one-hour ferry, and stay the required minimum of two nights at a charming B&B.